Peter Bart: Indicted By Media But Not By Law, Can Scandal-Scarred Men Return?

Associated Press

The issue of crime and punishment shouldn’t be too toxic for rational discussion, but I find this is becoming the case. And this is wrong, because decision time is looming – albeit a decision no one is eager to make.

Over the course of the past year the careers of many prominent figures have collapsed amidst the newly defined standards of the #MeToo era. But studio chiefs, filmmakers and others now confront this inevitable question: Does the punishment fit the crime? Repugnant behavior should be forcefully rebuked. On the other hand, are we in danger of re-living mistakes of the Hollywood Blacklist era when lives and careers were permanently destroyed by what proved, in some cases, to be frivolous and self-serving allegations?

Revelations of the present moment have put the spotlight on pervasive behavior that in some cases defies the imagination, but now difficult judgments must be made. Disney and Pixar imminently have to figure out the future role of John Lasseter, who has been on a six-month sabbatical. A range of personalities such as Charlie Rose, chef Mario Batali and Louis C.K. are testing the waters in the job market. Who will determine their fate, especially since, in some cases, the nature of the transgressions are still in dispute – witness James Franco, Michael Douglas or Casey Affleck, all of whom have experienced trial by media.

Bill Cosby

Reasonable people rush forward to make distinctions between those accused of criminal acts such as Harvey Weinstein, and those who live in the fog of allegations. Ryan Seacrest is still working, NBC hasn’t cut ties with Tom Brokaw, and the Academy has formally cleared its president John Bailey. Warner Bros has cut off deals with Brett Ratner, but Ratner, battling serious accusations, wants to remain a player. And then, of course, there is the long shadow of Bill Cosby, who, with Roman Polanski, were both expelled this week from the Motion Picture Academy.

Writing in the New York Times, Katie J.M. Baker concludes that “bad men are going to make their comebacks whether we like it or not,” but warns against the elusive concept of “restorative justice” wherein victims confront transgressors supposedly to achieve “reconciliation and forgiveness.” Arguably, this was the road taken by David Letterman, and the forgiveness seemed earned.

Of course, the “us” responsible for making these decisions consists of the leaders of the media world who, in turn, anticipate the values of the audience. Some argue that Mel Gibson unfairly served a decade in semi-exile as a result of drunken statements — was that a reasonable punishment? Will Al Franken’s political career be forever terminated by the allegations made against him?

The Brokaw accusations raise intriguing side questions about a tacit statute of limitations. Are allegations dating back two or three decades relevant to this discussion? A growing list of Brokaw’s colleagues and admirers (some 120 of them) have now signed a letter challenging an accusation by a former NBC correspondent that Brokaw, in the 1990s, had made sexual advances. Yet the list of women describing Rose’s random fondling and exposing keeps expanding. And similar dramas are unfolding at theater companies, TV stations and other sectors of society — a contagion of rumors and allegations.

Manners and mores have changed more sharply over the decades than most of us can comfortably accept. A trivial case in point: In the 1970s and ’80s it became common practice at elite Hollywood dinner parties for guests casually to disrobe after dinner and plunge into the hot tub, perhaps lighting up a joint in the process. It never occurred to me, when I found myself next to a famous actress or filmmaker, that recriminations would potentially surface (and I was running a company at the time). Nor did the hot tub culture seem to foster sexual activity, just frequent discomfort. It was also common practice in that era to have a one-on-one business meeting with a woman in one’s office, or at a restaurant, without fear of gossip (to be sure, some abused these privileged meetings).

Standards and mores have changed. I applaud those changes, but am concerned about long-term impact. While disgusted by the disreputable behavior that has come to light, I am also alarmed by how casually some allegations may gain acceptance — a grim reminder of the blacklist era. The upshot of the blacklist was that careers (and lives) were permanently extinguished; the “comebacks” were few and far between. Writers who had foolishly become tools of Communist propaganda decades earlier were barred from ever earning a living through their craft even though most had refuted their political bent. Over the years I was fortunate to be in a position to hire several of them. But having gotten to know the victims, I would not want to re-live that era of terror.

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